Brantley close to realizing dream
Published: Friday, July 20, 2012 at 4:35 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 20, 2012 at 9:09 p.m.
It was getting late in the evening on April 28, and no doubt John Brantley had to be feeling a little bit of disappointment.
After all, it is one of the goals of just about every kid who has ever strapped on a helmet and shoulder pads to hear his name announced during the NFL Draft. But seven rounds spanning three days went by without the former Florida Gator and Ocala Trinity Catholic High School quarterback receiving the call.
However, within a commercial break after the conclusion of the coverage on ESPN and the NFL Network, Brantley's phone rang.
Any bits of despair began to seep away, and a few minutes later he had agreed to a contract with the Baltimore Ravens.
“I'm just happy I got my foot in the door up there,” said Brantley, whose signing meant he had to turn down an offer from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that came a few minutes later. “I'm very blessed, very happy, very thankful to coach (John) Harbaugh, (offensive coordinator Cam) Cameron and everyone with the Ravens who gave me this opportunity.”
Brantley does have a difficult task in front of him. The Ravens have four other quarterbacks in camp. Starter Joe Flacco is guaranteed a roster spot, and the expectation is that athletic second-year Virginia Tech product Tyrod Taylor will be the backup. And veteran Curtis Painter, who started eight games in 2011 for the Peyton Manning-less Indianapolis Colts, was brought in to compete with Taylor for the No. 2 job.
That leaves Brantley and fellow rookie free agent Chester Stewart of Temple vying to compete for the attention of the coaching staff.
“I'm taking it, running with it and doing the best I can to give myself the best opportunity to make the team,” Brantley said.
Through six weeks of minicamps in Owings Mills, Md., Brantley said Harbaugh has given no indications of how many quarterbacks he plans to keep, though it could seem daunting that the Ravens had just two quarterbacks (Flacco and Taylor) on the roster in 2011. That said, the NFL has expanded offseason roster sizes from 80 to 90 this year, meaning more opportunities for players like Brantley and former Gator receiver Deonte Thompson, who has been a surprise standout in minicamps and OTAs as a rookie free agent.
And the Ravens wouldn't have brought in Brantley, who completed 398 of 645 passes for 4,750 yards with 30 touchdowns and 18 interceptions at UF, if they didn't see some promise. That's something former Gators now in the NFL like receiver Louis Murphy (Oakland Raiders), center Maurkice Pouncey (Pittsburgh Steelers), center Mike Pouncey (Miami Dolphins) and Brantley's former roommate, receiver Riley Cooper (Philadelphia Eagles), have stressed during calls of encouragement.
Baltimore also has shown a willingness to keep rookies. Last year, all eight drafted rookies made the squad, as did rookie free agent wide receiver LaQuan Williams. Linebackers Josh Byrnes and Chavis Williams, as well as offensive guard Justin Boren and defensive end Michael McAdoo also spent time on the roster. Additionally, starting linebacker Jameel McClain, long snapper Morgan Cox, reserve linebacker Albert McClellan and backup defensive tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu also have made meaningful contributions for the Ravens as undrafted free agents.
“The beauty of the whole thing is, probably more so than anywhere else in life, this really is a true meritocracy,” Harbaugh said of his team's rookie free agents. “We've got some talented guys here. There will be a couple of undrafted guys who have a shot to make the team.
“I wouldn't bet against it.”
Even as Brantley moves on, he always will have love for his formative days in Marion County and his time as a Gator.
On July 6 he and his father, John III, hosted the Brantley Quarterback Camp at Trinity Catholic. There, 10 prep quarterback and 14 receiving prospects received tutelage from the only father-son combination to ever start under center for Florida.
The elder Brantley, Trinity Catholic's head football coach, said the camp is designed to pass along the experience John IV gained through various camps as a developing QB.
“Our mission was to take everything we've been involved with the last 10 years, either as a participant or a counselor, and try and find the better fine points of what we got out of camps in the past and condense it to give back to these kids and do it in about a six-hour time frame instead of three days,” Brantley III said. “We're just maximizing our time and taking the best of what we've been involved with over the years from the Manning Passing Academy to the Elite 11 to the Florida camp, the Georgia camp, the USF camp... we've been involved with so many.
“So, we just took all of those and put them together.”
Those camps played a major role in helping the younger Brantley earn Gatorade National Player of the Year honors in 2006, his senior season at Trinity Catholic. He left the Celtics for UF as the state's all-time leader in touchdown passes with 99 (a record broken a couple of years later by Gainesville Oak Hall's Will Indianos, albeit against smaller school competition). In Gainesville, Brantley sat behind 2007 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow before becoming the Gators' full-time starter as a redshirt junior.
Brantley points to UF's 2009 BCS National Championship as his favorite college memory, while pointing to having to sit out two-and-half games (all losses) with a high ankle sprain his senior season as his least favorite.
The injury occurred against eventual national champ Alabama near the end of the first half of a contest where he had compiled the highest quarterback rating of his career (176.6), completing 11 of 16 passes for 190 yards with an interception and a 65-yard touchdown to Andre Debose on the game's first play — Brantley's favorite individual moment as a Gator. That was the second-highest passing total the vaunted Crimson Tide defense gave up all season.
“(Getting hurt) was frustrating, but it could have been much worse,” said Brantley. “I could have been done for the rest of the year, so it was a relief I wasn't.
“It was tough because you always want to be out there, and I was still travelling with the team, but it's not the same. You're not going out there on the field with them and playing and giving it your all.
“I had never been sidelined for a game before, so it was pretty hard to take.”
Brantley returned against Georgia, running a limited offense because he estimates his ankle was at best 60 percent. But, regardless of the limitations, there was no way he was missing that matchup against one of the school's biggest rivals.
“My goal was to be back for that game,” Brantley said. “I wish I was healthy, but I made it back and that's all that mattered to me.”
The Gators lost that day but finished the season with wins in three of their final five games, including a 24-17 defeat of Ohio State in the Gator Bowl. That contest matched up Urban Meyer's former and future teams.
Meyer left UF, citing health and family reasons, following Brantley's junior year, working with ESPN as an analyst before accepting the OSU job prior to bowl season. That left much of the Gator Nation bitter, but Brantley said he wasn't angry.
“It was whatever,” Brantley said. “We knew he had to go take care of himself and when he took the job we were already set with our coach (Will Muschamp).
“That's all we were worried about at the time. You can't control anything else, so I just worried about Florida, I worried about coach Muschamp and his whole coaching staff.”
Brantley said he has tremendous respect for both Meyer and Muschamp. He said the two men are hardly opposite personalities.
“They're really the same,” Brantley said. “People think there's a huge difference, but there's really not. They're both very intense and they're great coaches. One's got an offensive background (Meyer), the other's got defense. That's probably the biggest difference that I know of.”
Brantley's replacement at QB has yet to be named, but he said he has faith in both candidates, Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett.
“Driskel might be able to run a little bit better, is a little more athletic,” Brantley said. “And then Jacoby is more dropback — he can move, just not as well as Driskel. But I think they both throw great.
“People keep asking about who's going to win the job. It just depends on what kind of quarterback (new offensive coordinator Brent) Pease wants because I think they're both intelligent with the game of football and can do nice things.”
Brantley said his injury last year that cost him a half against Alabama and games at LSU and Auburn should prove to be a benefit to the two sophomores entering the 2012 season.
“I see them making huge strides,” Brantley said. “They both got playing time this past year, which will make them more comfortable when they get out there.”
For now, Brantley's primary focus remains the Ravens and the team's first full day of training camp on Thursday.
One thing Brantley's father taught his son early on was that “the windows to find open receivers get smaller at every level you advance,” and going up against a Baltimore defense that includes future Hall of Famers in linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed can help make a quarterback better, if it doesn't sack his confidence first.
Brantley said he is cautiously optimistic about the start of his NFL career, hoping it is lengthy and fruitful while adding “I'm going to give it everything I have, and if it doesn't work out, I can leave knowing I left nothing behind.”
Whenever his playing days are over, Brantley said he'd like to become a high school coach, just like his father. And at least one local quarterback attending the camp praised the younger Brantley for his focus.
“John sees a lot of details, the little things,” said Forest junior quarterback Jake Roddenberry. “He critiques your footwork, stresses keeping the ball high and your elbows loose — things you don't necessarily think about all of the time.”
That's always been the case, ever since his days as a fifth-grader learning to look off safeties.
“I've been a quarterback as long as I can remember,” Brantley said. “I love the game. I always have, and I want to be around it as long a I can.”